In every big organisation these days there is a room I avoid if I can. It is typically equipped with a long table, comfortable chairs, audio-visual screens and of course a whiteboard. On admission to this inner sanctum you are told you are being consulted and your thoughts matter. You will be given an aptly titled "PowerPoint" presentation of a problem and possible solutions, and the whiteboard will await your ideas.
You will quickly realise this is not a place for simple, practical and, you think, obvious solutions. This is a place with a language and culture of its own, where normally clear-headed people are expected to have visions and strategies, exciting concepts for going forward and thinking outside the box. You don't want to sound negative so you go with the flow. Its all written down to be formulated in the plan and it's only when you escape the room, breathe freely again and clear your head that you wonder, did any of that make any sense?
Auckland Transport's light rail plan, enthusiastically adopted by the Labour Party this week, is a classic product of those rooms. You can almost see the planners in AT's downtown office tower, sitting high over a splendid view of the harbour, looking at the possible options for rail to the airport. The simple and obvious solution is a line to the nearest point on the main trunk, at Puhinui, just a few kilometres from the airport.
It is obvious to any passenger on the right side of a plane landing from the east. The line would cross flat land still farmed or leased for industry, easily acquired. There is not much more to say about it. Adopt that option and there will be hardly time to finish the coffee let alone start on the muffins and savouries.
So look at that light rail plan. Now there is a vision. Look at the drawings of brightly painted, bullet-nosed trams with big windows, picking up people in the middle of streets like Dominion Rd. Or as Dominion Rd might be without parked cars. There are never parked cars in planners' streetscapes. The few motor vehicles in these pictures are ghostly shapes in the background. Look at that plan, isn't that the future?
I have looking at plans like that for more than 40 years. I started reporting Auckland's local government in 1974, just after Robbie had rejected the Kirk Labour Government's rapid rail offer. Back then, the Labour Party had gone to an election endorsing a rail scheme for Auckland just as it is doing now. Once in office, the party listened to cooler heads in national transport planning and scaled it down drastically, which is probably what will happen again if the Jacinda surge takes the party into power.
Jacinda Ardern strikes me as someone who thrives in the bullshit rooms. She has the manner, the patter, the bright-eyed relentless positivity that deals with negativity in the most disarming way. And on the whole I like it. Since Bill English is unlikely to go negative in a campaign built on balanced budgets, business confidence, prospective tax cuts and sustained economic growth, we may be about to see the most friendly election in my lifetime.
Winston will be snarling in his own way but he really doesn't matter. He would not dare put a loser into power. English and Ardern both know, but cannot say, Winston will go with the winner.
The Greens were the real worry in a Labour government but much less so now. Metiria Turei had some seriously weird views, quite apart from her ask-no-questions attitude to social welfare that has come to grief for her and the Greens. The light rail and water charging policies Ardern announced this week look like concessions to the Greens, so I don't want to assess Labour's new leader on them too much.
But investment on the scale of railways is really important. There are few surer ways to poison the whole economy than to impose needless costs on industries or indulge in big public projects with a poor return. It is not just the project's monetary cost but the resources it sucks from the rest of the economy and the distortions it creates in all activities that depend on water or transport as the case may be.
This is basic economics. Anyone who has been in Parliament nine years knows all about it but not all believe it. Peters doesn't, the Greens don't. Jacinda? Between policy announcements she is talking fiscal responsibility too.
But I need to see her thinking, not gushing. When she answers questions on something as nuts as long distance light rail I'd like to see her do better than go with the flow from those forums where folly prevails.